“Anything works” when you are dealing with novice athletes.
You can do 5-3-1, Starting Strength, 1x20, Triphasic, Husker Power, APRE, and the list goes on. There are also plenty of vertical jump programs and 40-yard dash workouts that will deliver good results for those who haven’t done much serious training.
So the big question is, “how do we transition training once athletes move beyond the intermediate stage into advanced performance?”
Training Structure for Novice Athletes
To give this article its full due, let’s start with the optimal setup for beginner athletes, which is low intensity, low volume weight training combined with a base of movement literacy and optimal sport biomechanics.
In most early groups, starting out with less is very important. It sets up athletes for better success in the later stages of their training and competition.
You see a similar story in track and field and cross country quite often: the athlete that ran 100 miles per week in high school becomes an elite distance runner. But when they got to a university, where did they have to go to improve? Run 120 miles a week? When you use your ace card early, there won’t be as much left later on.
Speaking more specifically, I’ve seen track and field sprinters from a particular “school” of speed training that employs a stout volume of very high intensity lifting and plyometrics. While it produces good results, it also shortchanges longevity and the highest possible performance.
“Athletes who use the most potent training means early in their career will be “tapped out” in terms of gains in their high performance years.”
What Happens When They're No Longer A Novice?
So what’s the optimal setup for athletes once they have progressed past the beginner phases?
I prefer to use programming similar to 1x20 for early phases: simply using one set of 10-20 reps in a diverse array of strength exercises, alongside optimizing an athlete’s biomechanics and KPIs in their particular sport.
The second part of that last statement is probably the most under-used and under-appreciated portion of the sports performance industry. Athletes need to be set up for success by optimizing their sport biomechanics early.
Research has shown that the fascia of an athlete is largely “formed” in terms of thickness and strain patterning by age 17, so it is important for young athletes to learn the proper technique and get an adequate amount of reps in doing so before they hit college... but not so many that they hurt their ability to continue progress.
This is, of course, the razor wire walked on in athletic performance. But erring on the side of slightly less will serve those who use it well.
Different Training Age = Different Training Needs
It is important to realize that programming can and should be steered in the direction of speed and power as athletes grow in abilities, as well as directing that speed and power into proper speed and sport technique.
For example, with the advent of force and velocity profiling, we are now seeing athletes who can put up massive weight room numbers but still aren't running fast due to an inability to redirect that force horizontally into the ground.
We have also seen work that indicates collegiate football players will make speed-related gains their freshman year (while also adding a good amount of strength). But after this point, speed and vertical jump indicators tend to stagnate, even though strength continues to improve all four years.
The key, then, is to address progress on two fronts:
- What exercises will transfer more directly to the speed and movement technique of the athlete in their sport?
- How should training blocks for advanced athletes be different than novice and intermediates?
Let’s dive into what makes the difference in training advanced athletes, starting with exercise selection.
Exercise Selection for Advanced Athletes
When moving from beginner to advanced, the biggest thing to look at is what proportion of the program will be general vs. specific training, and what types of special strength exercises will be used. A quick definition of terms:
- General Strength: Full range of motion, traditional weightlifting, triplanar, and bodyweight exercises, designed to improve the muscular and functional capacities of an athlete.
- Specific Strength: Exercises that are extremely close in velocity and biomechanical sequence to an athlete’s actual sport movement, designed to improve the neurological and myofascial capacities of an athlete. Examples here would be specific depth jumps, resisted and assisted sprinting, and even velocity-specific Olympic lifts.
For beginner athletes, nearly all “extra” training outside one’s sport skill should go into the general category at a low and progressive intensity.
As athletes start to reach higher levels of performance, they can slowly and gradually infuse more specific strength training means.
“Advanced athletes need a higher proportion of special strength work in their training regime”
As athletes reach a higher level of performance in their sport, the best practice is to start to shift toward a more liberal use of special strength. Use movements like heavy sled sprints, assisted sprint training in various forms (starting with the wind or “submaximal” assisted running, where an athlete sprints at 98-100% of their typical speed with a little extra help from a cord, or even the wind), specific depth jumps utilizing sport-specific stimuli, and so on.
As tempted as many coaches are to bring out these training means early to get quick results, they are best used later on in an athlete’s developmental process.
Olympic lifts and movements at the point of advanced athletics should be measured by velocity. And even velocity-based high-pulls (as opposed to cleans) should be a core consideration, since transfer becomes more and more velocity specific, and there are subtle nuances between cleans and high pulls in extension patterning that causes me to toss my hat to the high-pull in developing advanced athletes.
What kind of means also depends on the type of athlete.
Muscular-driven athletes will do better with a higher proportion of general strength activities, while elastic-driven athletes will be held back by a high volume of general strength early on, and will do well to get a proper volume of work in their actual sport with a split contribution of general and special work.
The biggest mistake in training advanced athletes for the highest levels of their sport is simply using weight room marks as an indicator. There is the occasional “Type 1A”, (according to Christian Thibaudeau’s classifications), the “fireplug” athlete that can benefit from very heavy lifts throughout their career. But this should be considered carefully, especially in sports outside elite track and field competitors for the sake of triplanar movement and injury prevention.
Training Block Construction for Advanced Athletes
Compared to beginners and even intermediates, advanced athletes, generally speaking, have:
- A greater capacity to inflict damage on themselves due to larger muscular outputs
- A higher adaptation rate to any given stimulus
- A need for continual learning and problem solving throughout their career
When looking at beginner and intermediate training blocks, we will typically see something like the following cycles happening over the course of 3-5 months.
We will also see general training cycles that are fairly long, such as 5-6 weeks, since beginners to training can stay on a similar training load for a longer period of time.
Likewise, intermediate athletes who still will adapt to new loads fairly easily can also stay on a similar training cycle for some time period, what we typically see as the “industry standard” 4 week cycle, before a deload or training is switched up.
See the examples below of these types of training cycles.
So what is different for advanced athletes and competitors?
For one, on the yearly training cycle, they don’t need as long of a general “get back in shape” phase since they are already at a very high level. Going beyond 2-3 weeks of general training, such as fitness circuits, tempo training, wind sprints, hill work, high rep lifting, etc. doesn’t push these athletes in the direction they need to go.
When looking at how training will progress over time, you’ll generally see more In abbreviated training cycles, which look something like the following:
The above listing would represent a typical quick cycle when an athlete has just a few months of training before the next season begins.
When an advanced athlete has more time to prepare, we must keep in mind their fast adaptation rate to stimulus requires a more frequent alternation, so in these cases, switching blocks of strength and explosive power can be helpful in delivering a good result, as shown below.
In these cases, know that “maximal strength” may be different for different athletes. More muscle-driven athletes will generally do better with traditional maximal strength means, where more elastic-driven athletes will require more complex training, alternating weights performed in fairly specific ranges with special strength work.
It is also important to look at the week-to-week structure of training. Where beginner athletes can go 4-6 weeks before needing to deload, advanced athletes are often powerful enough that they do enough damage to need a deload or undulation in volume every 3rd week, or even every other week in some cases.
Where beginners can and should unload by reducing the intensity, advanced athletes should be wary of dropping out the intensity in an unloading week, and should rather look to unload training volume, especially in athletes with a strong and developed nervous system.
Unloading these athletes in a manner that drops intensity to 60%, as is common, will often crash their dopamine levels and leave them fairly flat going into the next training cycle.
These are some basic examples of how training can and should be adjusted as an athletes progresses through the ranks.
Beginner vs. Advanced
In conclusion, there are several significant training differences between beginner and advanced athletes in the construction of training blocks for sustained gains into later training years.
Running the same 4-week training block, with the same general strength methods, will only get athletes so far in the grand scheme of their maximal performance capacity.